KIDNAPPED by Phyllis Loafman

"Little Britches" Universe

Buck had retrieved JD from the woman behind the bar and headed to the livery to get their mounts. The boy whined about not getting to ride his mare, but Buck insisted he ride with him on Beavis.

"JD, son, you're too tired to ride this afternoon. I don't want to explain to Chris and Vin how I let you fall off your horse 'cause ya fell asleep. You can ride tomorrow. Okay?"

The boy had not put up much of a fight which only proved to the man how tired he actually was. The further they got from town, the lower the child's head drooped. Buck chuckled at the limp little body that swayed in the saddle. Poor little guy had a long day. Buck chucked at Beavis to keep him moving. Molly's halter rope ran across Buck's leg, so he leaned over JD to see if the rope was against the boy's leg.

Next thing he knew he was eating dirt. 'Hell, did I fall asleep and fall out of the saddle?' he thought. Then he remembered the boy. He tried to raise up, but his arms wouldn't cooperate. He didn't seem to have any strength. He turned his head and saw JD laying on the ground beside him, crying.

"JD? Are you okay?" Buck rasped. The boy sat up and looked at him. Blood covered the side of the small face. Buck tried once again to lift himself off the ground. He failed again. He turned his face back to the boy to ask again if he was okay, but the look on the bloody face froze his words in his throat. He started to turn the other way, when his head seemed to explode with shower of stars and dancing black spots. He vaguely heard JD screaming

"NO! LET ME GO! BUCK! HELP! BUUUCK!" he could hear the boy screaming and then, suddenly, it got quiet. Buck fought the blackness that threatened to engulf him. He managed to turn his head toward the side he'd heard the screams coming from. He saw a man riding away, leading Beavis and Molly. But it was what he didn't see that spurred him up to his hands and knees. Where was the boy? God, where was JD?

Buck raised himself to one knee and looked around, but there was no sign. He pushed himself upright and took one step before his knees gave way and he tumbled to the ground, unconscious.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Vin left the Travis' and headed for the livery. "Vin, would you like to stay in town tonight? Its goin'a be dark before we reach home."

Vin shook his head. "No, Chris. I don't want JD to be alone tonight."

"Buck's there. He won't be alone."

The seven year old shook his head again. "Ain't the same, just being in the house, as sleeping in the same room and bed. He might get scared about what happened today."

Chris put his hand on the small, yet terribly broad shoulder. "Let's ride, then." They saddled up and headed home.

They were about half way home when Sam and Pony started tossing their heads. Chris reined in and reached over to take hold of Sam's reins. "Whoa. Easy, boys. It's okay."

Vin's head swiveled around, scanning for trouble. Chris also looked around. The animals smelled something. Big cat, maybe or coyotes, more likely. Not seeing anything, Chris told Vin to stay close and keep Sam's head pulled in. They continued on. A couple of hundred yards later, they saw something in the road. Chris couldn't see it well, because of the waning light. He told Vin to hold up a minute. If he was alone, Chris would have drawn his gun and moved in, but having the boy made him more cautious. When the object did not move, he slowly advanced. The boy started forward also, but Larabee indicated that he stay where he was.

"Shit," Chris hissed as he got closer. He jumped from his horse and ran to the body of his best friend. He reached out and felt for a pulse. He released the breath he hadn't realized he had been holding. He rolled Buck over just as Vin arrived and dismounted, joining him. Vin's gasped when he saw Buck's face. "Is he dead?"

Chris shook his head and started checking Buck for injuries. He felt the little boy's trembling hand on his back. Chris opened Buck's shirt and found a gunshot wound high in his left shoulder. Blood still oozed from the wound.

"Vin, go get my saddlebags off of Pony." He glanced up when the boy didn't move. He reached up and touched the thin arm. "He'll be okay, Vin. But we have to stop the bleeding. Go on."

Vin blinked and turned his eyes to the blond man. He nodded and ran to the horse. Chris turned back to the wounded man. He checked and found another wound on Buck's scalp. He looked up as Vin brought the saddlebags over. He dropped them by Chris, along with a canteen. "Good boy, Vin."

He pulled a shirt from his saddlebag and tore it up. He put a wad of the shirt against the wound front and back and tied the strips around Buck's chest to hold the pads of material against the wounds. Chris used more of the material to clean the gash on the man's head. He looked around as he worked. Vin stood watching as the man worked. He watched as Chris looked around and it suddenly hit him-JD.

"Where's JD? Chris, where's JD?" Vin spun around, looking in all directions. He ran around looking further away and, not finding his cousin, he ran back to Chris, tears running down his face. "Chris, he's not here. Do you think he tried to go get help?"

Chris couldn't help but hear the desperation in the boy's voice. He didn't want to tell Vin that JD was probably taken by the man or men that shot Buck. He hoped that he had been at least, because the alternative was that he lay out there in the dust, injured or worse. He didn't want to think about the boy laying somewhere, dead. It wasn't something he wanted to face. Maybe Buck could shed some light on what happened when he came to. 'If he came to. No, don't think that.' Chris told to himself.

"Vin, we need to get Buck to Nathan. I need your help." He saw the boy looking around, searching for the missing boy. "Vin. We have to get Buck into town"

"But, JD.."he started.

"We can't find him in the dark. We'll take Buck in and get some help in looking for JD. Okay?" Chris took the boy by the arms and gently rubbed them. He wanted to hurry, but he had to make sure the boy understood. He couldn't fight to keep Vin close and take care of Buck at the same time.

"'kay." The tiny voice was barely heard, the despair evident.

It was a struggle, but he finally got Buck onto Sam. He had decided that putting him on Sam was the only way. Buck was too heavy for Chris to manhandle up onto his black gelding. He mounted Pony and pulled the boy up behind him.

"Vin, I need you to keep an eye on Buck. If he starts to slip off Sam, let me know."

He felt the boy nod against his back. He kicked Pony in the ribs and they headed back to Four Corners.

+ + + + + + +

The man rode quickly, leading the two saddle horses. He was getting close to where the woman should be waiting for him. He felt the small boy start to stir in front of him.

"Boy, you awake?" he asked as he drew the animals to a halt. He put his hand under the child's chin and lifted, even as he heard a tiny voice.


"Sorry, kid. Buck ain't here. It 's just you and me." He watched as JD rubbed his eyes, eyes that cleared and registered what he was looking at. He felt the boy tense, even as the scream erupted from his mouth. Foster fought to control the horse as it nervously danced around. He clamped a hand over the boy's mouth as he regained control of the horse.

Grabbing the child by the arm, he spun him around to face him. Foster glared at the boy. He shook him roughly and hissed, "If you ever want to see your family again, don't make another sound. You understand me, boy?" He gave the boy another shake to make sure he had his attention. JD nodded.

The man gave a humorless smile. "Okay. Now that we understand each other, I'll tell you what’s going to happen. You're going back to that nice lady that you were with this afternoon. You're going to stay with her and play that she's your ma." He gripped the tiny arms harder when he saw the protest in the boy's eyes. "It's only playing, I know she's not your ma and you know she's not, but she doesn't. She's been sick and this'll help her get better. You be good and I'll let ya go home in a couple of weeks. If you're not good, well, I'll go back and kill Buck. And if you're bad a second time, I'll go back and kill Larabee, or maybe that boy with him."

JD's hazel eyes filled and overran with tears. Chin quivering, his voice was barely loud enough to hear. "No, please don't hurt, Vin. Him and Buck and Chris are my family. I'll be good. Cross my heart." The little boy made a sign over his heart, his eyes begging the man to believe him.

"Okay, kid. That's good enough for me. You just remember no crying or carrying on about wanting to go home. Two weeks and I'll let you go."

He turned the boy around again to face front and they rode off to meet the woman. Foster smiled. Things were looking up. He just might keep his promise to the kid and release him after they got to Oregon.

+ + + + + + +

It had taken two hours, but the trio had made it back to Four Corners. Chris drew the horses up in front of the steps to Nathan's clinic. He reached around and helped Vin slide off of Pony. "Vin. Go up and knock on Nathan's door. I'm goin'a need help gettin' Buck up stairs."

The boy nodded and tore up the stairs. Chris could hear him pounding on the door. It wasn't long before he heard it open and the soft murmur of Vin's voice. He heard steps of someone approaching him from behind. He drew his gun as he whirled. Josiah Sanchez stepped back with his hands outspread.

"I reckon that there's been trouble?" he asked as Chris blew out his breath.

"Yeah. Sorry, Josiah. Buck's been hurt." He and the preacher were removing Wilmington from the small saddle as Nathan arrived.

"What happened?" the healer asked.

"Ain't sure, Nathan. Vin and me found him on the road. He's got a hole in his shoulder and a gash on the head." They carried Buck up the stairs and put him on the bed. Nathan examined the wounds and started to gather the things he would need to repair the damage. Josiah set about removing the man's shirt, while Chris removed his partner's boots and gun belt. Chris moved away and made room for the healer. Josiah assisted with the cleaning and stitching of the wounds.

Chris was worried and sat frowning as he watched the men working on his best friend and partner. He slowly became aware of a warmth on his leg and looked down into the light blue eyes of a very scared seven year old boy.

"Vin, I'm sorry." Chris gathered the small, wiry boy into his arms and drew him in tight. He felt the tremors shake the small frame and guilt ate at the gunfighter's stomach. He had totally forgotten the boy as he tended to Buck. He had also forgotten about the other small boy; the one still missing. He stood, supporting the boy that clung to his neck.

"Nathan, we need to go get Ezra. Is Buck goin'a be alright?" Chris inquired. He saw Nathan glance over his shoulder, pausing in his bandaging.

"Yeah, he should be okay, as long as he don't get a fever. And he stays in bed." He straightened, flexing his back muscles as he finished. "What are you planning on doing?"

Chris hefted Vin onto one arm and placed the other hand on the boy's head, snugging him under his chin. "I need to go back to where we found Buck. See if I can track whoever did this."

Josiah frowned at Chris. It was still dark outside and there was not much moonlight to track by. "Brother Chris, I realize that you feel the need to avenge our fallen companion, but don't you find it a bit reckless to attempt this at night?"

Chris gazed at the preacher and found himself gripping the young boy more intensely. "Buck was alone on the road, Josiah. The horses were gone." Chris lowered his voice, even though he knew Vin could still hear him. "JD was gone."

Josiah paled and staggered slightly. Nathan sat down heavily in the chair next to the bed. "Lord, Chris. I didn't even think about..."

Josiah's face went from pale to red as he thought of the small child. 'How much most he be subjected to in his young life?' the preacher thought. "Chris, have you checked with the wagon train? The Foster woman?"

Chris' eyes narrowed. How could he have not thought of that earlier? He took Vin and sat him down in the chair. "Vin, stay here. Josiah, do you mind?"

Vin jumped out of the chair and followed the men to the door. "I want ‘a go."

"No." Chris pointed to the chair. "You stay here." The two men started for the door.

"NO!" the little boy cried. He stood with his fists clenched at his sides, his feet spread apart. "JD's my cousin. I swore to his mama that I would look out for him. I have to go."

Josiah looked at the black clad gunman and waited. Chris glared at the boy, but he did not back down. Finally Chris held out his hand. Vin nodded slightly and joined them at the door. Nathan shook his head as the door closed behind them. He had never seen a child as ferociously protective as Vin Tanner. He would do anything to protect his family.

+ + + + + + +

The trio approached the train in the dark night. Campfires burnt low around the wagons, guards sitting around them. Being near a settlement, the men did not feel the need to be as diligent as they would have been on the trail. Josiah called out as they entered the encampment. He recognized two of the men.

"Mr. Evans, Mr. Walters. Can we come in?"

They waved them in. "Preacher, what are you doing out this time of night?"

"We came to see Mrs. Foster."

The five turned at the sound of a wagon creaking. Henry Taylor jumped out of his wagon, pulling his suspenders over his shoulders, and joined them at the fire. He nodded a greeting. "Mr. Sanchez."

Josiah introduced Chris to the men and told them of the evenings events.

Taylor shook his head. "Foster pulled out right after you men took the boy back. Told him he should wait until morning, but he insisted. Said it would be too hard on the woman to stay around after losing her boy."

"Do you know where they were headin'?" Chris asked.

"Oregon. That's what Foster told me. Got family up there." Taylor poured himself some coffee and offered it to Chris and Josiah. They shook their heads.

"Thanks, no. What time did they leave?"

"Midday. It was directly after ya'll left camp. Packed the wagon and drove off." He pointed northwest to indicate their direction.

Chris stood. Josiah and Vin followed him up. Taylor tossed the leftover coffee on the ground. "You reckon Foster came after the boy, shot your man?"

"How well do you know the man? Could he do that?" Josiah questioned.

"Jack kept to himself. Didn't talk to us much. He married Sally after her husband was killed. Took her and the boy on."

Chris' brow furrowed. "Foster wasn't the boy's father?"

"No. He showed up a couple of weeks after Abel was killed. He and Sally married as a convenience. She needed a man and he was headed to Oregon to start a ranch."

"What kind of man did Foster seem to ya?" Chris asked the wagon master.

Taylor hesitated, glancing as the men sitting around to him. Chris saw a slight nod from one man, while another dropped his eyes to his cup.

"Truthfully?" Taylor looked at Chris and then looked away. "Both Sally and the boy seemed to get awful quiet and withdrawn after he joined up. Thinking back on it, they both seemed to have a lot of bumps and bruises after." Taylor looked up at the soft swear from Josiah. He wished he hadn't when he found himself directly in the glare of Chris Larabee. He had faced down many a man in his time-white and red both, but never had a look instilled such a fear of reprisal.

Chris sat absolutely still, his eyes on the men on front of him. They were all aware of the abuse of the woman and boy by this man and no one had done anything. He fought the rage that welled up inside of him. Finally in control, he unfisted his hands and spoke. Chris' voice was barely above a whisper, but cut through the men as though it were screamed. "Foster was beating these two and you did nothing? Aren't you responsible for your people?"

Taylor opened his mouth, then closed it. He wanted a drink, but feared that he would choke on the knot in his throat, even if he had something to swallow. He worked up some moisture in his mouth and tried again. "Mr. Larabee, I don't interfere with a man and his family. What happens in the wagons is not my concern. I'm paid to take them west and try to keep them safe from harm. Harm from floods and Indians, not their husbands." He knew that he should have offered to help the woman, but he had turned a blind eye to the domestic problem to avoid a confrontation with Foster. He had failed and he knew it. Larabee knew it as well.

Chris took Vin by the hand. Josiah followed as Larabee turned to leave. But Chris stopped and placed Vin's small hand in the preacher's. He inclined his head to Josiah to keep moving. The big chested man picked the small boy up and strode off toward town. Larabee turned back to the campfire. The men sitting there rose and braced themselves.

"You allowed a man from this train to abuse a woman and child in your care and you did nothing. Not one of you raised a hand to help. Now he has taken her away, on the trail alone. What do you think will happen to her now? But, no, I'm wrong. They are probably not alone, are they? Foster is more than likely the man that back shot my partner and friend, left him on the road to bled to death. And now, he has another child; the cousin of that little boy that was sitting next to me and heard what cowards you all are. If that child is harmed before I find Foster, if my partner dies...." Chris paused and lowered his voice. "I strongly suggest that tonight be your last night in my town. If any thing happens to JD, you will want as much distance between me and you as possible." Chris reached up and touched his hat. "Sleep well, gentlemen." He turned and left the encampment, as the men behind men drew shaky breaths.

"God all mighty. I don't know about ya'll, but tomorrow, I'm packing and head west as fast as I can."

The men stood for a moment. Taylor spoke out loud to no one in particular. "He's right. I should have done something. Ain't right for a man to beat a woman, or a child." He shook his head in disgust.

Evans placed a hand on the wagon master's shoulder. "Henry, you ain't the only guilty party here. We were all aware of the problem and none of us did anything. We can all share blame here. But, what's done is done. Next time we'll know that right is right. Whether it's between two men or a man and wife. And next time we'll step in to help."

The men all nodded in agreement. They would stand up next time, they would do the righteous thing and act morally responsible to all men. They just prayed that their inaction this time would not cost anymore lives than had already been lost. They prayed for the safe return of one five year old child to his loving family, as much for their sakes as the boy's.

+ + + + + + +

Jack rode into camp late. Sally had tried to stay awake for the return of her son, but had drifted off after couple of hours. She awoke at the noise of a soft snort as the animals entered camp and grabbed the rifle. She peeked through the flap at the back of the wagon. When she saw Jack with the little boy asleep in front of him, she lay down the rifle and jumped to the ground. The man handed her the limp form and dismounted, stretching his back as he hit the ground. He watched as the woman walked away cradling the little boy to her breast.

JD had fought off sleep as long as he could. But the day's events, along with the violence of the man who took him had left the child drained of energy. He had sunk lower in the saddle the further they rode. He lost the fight two hours earlier, much to Foster's relief. He had grown tired of the sounds the boy had been making in his grief and discomfort. The fugitive did not care if JD's face hurt where he had been struck into silence or that his little arms ached and were bruised where the man had gripped him. The boy whined until Foster once again yanked the little body around to face him.

"Let's get something straight, boy. I ain't putting up with whining and crying. You stop right now. You do as you're told and don't be complaining or I'll leave you right here for the coyotes to eat. Do you understand me?"

JD's eyes had grown wide and he mutely nodded. Jack's one act of kindness was to wash the boy's face as they sat there. He knew the sight of the mustached man's blood on the boy would set the woman off and he was too tired to deal with her tonight. Afterwards, they had continued on in silence. He felt the boy slipping into slumber and tightened his grip as they rode on toward the dark horizon.

Sally cooed to the boy as he mumbled and squirmed in her arms. He quickly settled back to sleep as the woman climbed into the wagon and drew the curtain behind her. Jack started to tell her to leave it open, but decided to just sleep under the wagon rather than argue with her. He'd have a talk with her tomorrow. All he wanted now was the unsaddle the horses and get some rest. The small camp quickly fell into silence as the trio slept.

+ + + + + + +

By the time Chris, along with Vin and Josiah, got back to Nathan's, Ezra had heard about the shooting and gone to the healer's room to check on Buck. Nathan and Ezra looked up as Josiah entered, followed by a very dark Chris Larabee who was once again carrying the young boy. The blond man was trying to control the rage within him; to not allow it to transmit to the boy he held in his arms.

Chris asked about Buck. Hearing that he was resting comfortably, Josiah recounted what they had learned in the wagon camp. Nathan shook his head as they retold the story. He had seen plenty of the abuses man heaped upon their fellow men. It did not make it any easier for him to accept. Ezra simply looked sickened by the whole episode. As a southern gentleman, he could not understand how any man could strike a lady or a child. That Jack Foster was no gentleman was the conclusion of the fancy-dressed gambler.

Chris was sure that Foster was the one that had shot Wilmington and taken young JD. He hoped that he was actually heading to Oregon as he had told Taylor. There were only a couple of ways through the mountain range to the Oregon territory. It would narrow the places he would have to search considerably. But he now knew he would have to wait until morning and it angered him even more. He wanted to get his hands on this man that abused women and children and back-shot people.

The men discussed about the best route for Foster to have taken and the night wore into early dawn. Buck started stirring just as the sun rose. As much as Chris wanted to get on the trail, he also wanted to talk to the injured man and get as much information as he could.

"Buck? Time to wake up. Come on, Buck, I really need to talk to ya." Chris sat on the edge of the bed. He had placed one hand on Buck's good shoulder, while the other gently patted the man's face.

"Wha...what, Chris? Ain't time to get up yet." Buck mumbled as he tried to knock Chris' hands away. He moaned as that action stirred up the pain in his left shoulder.

"Buck! Wake up. I need to ask ya some questions." Chris insisted.

"What?" Buck asked as he opened and closed his eyes several times. He looked at Chris and then around the room. His eyebrows knitted as he recognized Nathan's place. He saw Nathan sleeping nearby on another bed and Josiah asleep on the floor. Ezra stood by the window, his hands clasped behind his back as he stared out into the street. Buck looked again at Chris. "What happened? Why 'm I here?"

Chris looked away for a moment and then back at his best friend. "Someone shot you last night, Buck. Can you remember anything?"

Buck's brow furrowed as he tried to remember the last evening. He shook his head, bringing his right hand up to rub his forehead. "I don't really remember anything about..." He stopped talking as Vin approached, rubbing sleep from his eyes. Chris glanced at the little boy. He stood barefoot in a nightshirt borrowed from Nathan. It hung off one shoulder and dragged the floor, making the boy look like a waif. Chris started to reach for Vin, when his arm was unexpectedly gripped by the Buck. Chris turned back to a suddenly very pale Buck. He reached out and pushed Buck gently back down onto the bed, calling for Nathan at the same time.

Nathan quickly rose and joined Chris as they attempted to calm a thrashing Buck.

"Oh, Lord, Chris. The boy. I think he took the boy." Buck weakly fought for a minute, then fell down against the pillow. Tears streamed from his eyes and he shuddered when he drew a breath. "JD. Chris, what happened to JD?"

Buck knew without a word from Larabee that the boy was not there. He threw back the covers and tried to swing his legs off the bed. Josiah and Ezra joined the others at the bed. It took all four men to confine Buck to the bed. Vin had backed away and stood by the window Ezra had been looking out. Chris was yelling at Buck to calm down.

Buck fought his friends, determined to go find the boy, until he saw Vin standing there in the overly large night shirt, hair sticking up or plastered to his face from sleep. The boy was standing with both hands clutched at his sides, his lip quivering and tears running down his face. Buck could see the tremors shake the small frame even through his fevered eyes. He suddenly realized that he was terrifying the boy with his outburst. He relaxed back onto the bed and held his hand out to the boy. Vin wiped his eyes and shuffled over to the bed.

"I'm sorry, Vin. I didn't mean to scare you. You know how I blow and go sometimes. Ya just got to ignore me when I get like that." Buck reached out and wiped a tear from the boy's chin, smiling. Vin leaned over the bed and hugged Buck's neck.

"I'm glad you're better, Buck." The boy returned Wilmington's smile and stepped back. The men stood silent for a minute.

Ezra broke the quiet when he cleared his throat. "Young Mr. Tanner, I believe that they serve a wonderful and varied menu at the saloon. Would you care to join me and break our fast over some bacon and eggs this fine morning?"

Vin looked to Chris. The man smiled down at the boy. "Why don't you get dressed and go with Ez and order us some breakfast. You know what I want?"

"Sure thing, Chris. 'Four eggs, hard, and half 'a pig and a pot of coffee, black.', right?"

"You got it. You go on and I'll be there before it arrives." Chris ran his fingers through Vin's hair to try and tame it with a little success. He watched as Ezra led the boy out of the room. Vin turned sharply and returned to Chris. "You ask Buck about JD," he whispered and spun around to join the southerner at the door.

Chris looked again at Buck. "Can you tell us what happened?"

"Chris, I don't remember much. I had JD in the saddle with me and suddenly I was on the ground. He was crying..." Buck's voice caught in his throat as he remembered the sounds. Buck's hand came up to his face. "He had blood... all over the side... I couldn't tell where he was hurt. He was crying and then something hit me. I remember JD screaming for help...." Buck rubbed his face with his good hand. "calling for me... I tried to stand. I saw a man leading Molly and Beavis away. I guess I passed out then."

Josiah placed a hand on Buck's shoulder. "Did you see young JD with this man?"

Buck shook his head.

Chris stood and walked to the window and back. "Small as the boy is, he could have been in front of the man and you wouldn't see him."

Buck gave that some thought and nodded in agreement. "He was moving away from me, so I couldn't see the front of the saddle. The boy could ‘a been in front. He was headin' west."

"We didn't see anything around where we found you, so the he probably took JD. That may be why you got shot." Chris saw the confusion as well as the fatigue in Buck's eyes. "We think a man named Jack Foster shot you and took JD. Foster is the name of the woman that took JD to the wagon train."

Realization sparked in Buck's eyes. "That...woman had her husband steal JD for her?" Buck almost shook with the rage within him.

Chris held up a hand. "No. I don't think so."

Buck sat up in the bed, leaning against the pillows. "Why would a man steal a child, if not for his wife? Is he trying to replace his own son with mine?"

Chris turned away from Buck. He didn't want to tell the whole story to him. But Buck knew the blond gunman too well.

"Chris, what ain't you telling me?" Larabee tensed, but did not turn around. "Dammit, Chris, turn around and talk to me."

"Foster wasn't the boy's father. Him and the woman only been married a few weeks; real father got killed on the trail." Chris still had not turned back to the bedridden man.

"And.." Buck prompted.

Chris finally turned and looked Buck in the eyes. "He beat the woman. Wagon master said she started having bruises and 'accidents' after Foster joined the train." He stopped and compressed his mouth before continuing. "The boy, too."

"Shit." Buck flung the covers back and swung his legs off the bed. He stood before anyone could stop him. The three men came forward and grabbed his arms as he swayed. Buck's knees buckled and he found himself back on the bed. "Dammit, Chris, if you know who has the boy, why are you here?" Buck held his head in one hand, fighting the wave of dizziness.. His voice reflected the answer he excepted to get, but he still flinched when Chris stated that Foster and the woman had pulled out and left the day before.

They all turned to the door as it opened and admitted Judge Travis and Mary. Larabee and the others greeted them with a good morning and nods. Buck had climbed back in bed and pulled the covers up over his chest

"Good morning, Buck. How are you feeling?" Mary asked.

"Fine, ma'am. Thank you."

"We ran into Mr. Standish and young Vincent. They informed us of last nights events." The judge sat next to the bed and gave Buck a hard stare. "You feeling all right, boy?"

Buck nodded, weakly. "Yes, sir. We're just trying to figure out what to do. Chris has figured out who attacked us last night."

That brought Judge Orrin Travis' attention around to the blond man standing behind him. "This true, Chris?"

"Think it was the husband of the woman that took JD yesterday." He saw Orrin's eyebrows raise at the news. "He married her after the train started west and her husband was killed."

"Are you sure about the identity? Did you see who shot you, Buck?"

"No." Buck dropped his eyes. A moment later he brought them back up. "I did see who took the horses. He's a big man. He was wearing a black vest and light shirt."

"That could be him. Foster is a big man, rough looking. He was wearing a black vest yesterday."

"Not much evidence for a attempted murder charge or kidnapping. He could have taken the horses, but not been a part of the shooting or have taken young JD."

"Judge, can we swear out a complaint and get a warrant?" Chris asked.

"Not for shooting Buck or taking the boy. Chris, you know what we talked about last night, you don't have the legal authority."

Buck looked at his partner. "What's he talking about?"

Chris met Buck's questioning gaze. "I had a talk with Orrin about the ranch and the boys. I wanted to check on want it would take to adopt the boys. In case something happens to me, I want to be sure you get the ranch, have a place for the boys."

Buck shook his head, looking paler than before. "Damn, pard, you couldn't talk to me 'bout this?"

"Ain't nothing but paperwork, Buck. Far as I'm concerned, you're half owner of everything I got. Just need to know that I've taken care of them boys." Chris walked over and placed a hand on the injured man's shoulder.

Buck's eyes glistened. He swallowed around a lump in his throat. Chris gripped the shoulder briefly and then stepped back. "Ain't no big deal, Buck."

"Lord, Chris. King of understatement, that's what you are." Their eyes met and feelings were expressed without words.

Orrin watched the exchange. He cleared his throat. "Chris, we can not issue a warrant for the shooting, but we can issue a notice about the horse theft."

"Taylor said Foster was heading for Oregon. Should take them close to Eagle Bend. We can wire the sheriff and have him keep an eye peeled for the wagon."

Josiah told them he would handle sending the wire. He headed out the door and down the stairs as Ezra and Vin started up. Ezra was carrying trays of food. "Mr. Sanchez, are you leaving? Mr. Tanner and I thought you gentlemen might care for a bit of sustenance."

"Thanks, Ezra, Vin. I have to run an errand, but I'll be back."

Vin opened the door as Chris told the others that he was planning to go back to where they found Wilmington and track Foster from there. Vin froze in the doorway where Ezra almost ran over him.

"Excuse me, Mr. Tanner, but you need move into the room or you will be wearing the meal we have brought."

Vin blushed and moved out of the door. Ezra moved across the room and placed the trays on the small table in the corner. Orrin and Mary moved to the door. Mary touched Chris's sleeve as she passed. Her eyes asked that he be careful because she knew she could not ask him to not go. Orrin tipped his hat to the men in the room and they left together.

Chris asked Buck if he wanted to eat something, but got a shake of the head. "I think I'll rest a bit, if you don't mind." Buck settled back into the bed and drifted off.

Chris shook his head when Ezra handed him a plate. "I need to get on the trail, Ez."

He turned toward the door, only to be stopped by a small body. Vin stepped between the black-clad man and the door. The boy's eyes were wide and shone with unshed tears. Chris squatted and placed a hand on the slender shoulder. "I'll find him, Vin and I'll bring him back."

The small boy shook his head. "I know, Chris. But you have to eat. Can't ride if you don't eat, right? You always tell us we have to eat first."

Chris had to smile. The boy was throwing his own words back at him. "You're right, Vin. Thanks for reminding me." He stood and took the plate from Standish.

Ezra released the plate and headed for the door. "Mr. Larabee, I will go saddle our mounts. That will allow for our departure as soon as you have finished your breakfast."

"You don't have to go, Ez."

"I am aware of this, Chris, but I would appreciate you allowing me to accompany you on this quest. I have the idea that you might need assistance with the malefactor as you will undoubtedly by occupied with the child."

Chris nodded and Ezra left the room. He and Nathan ate in silence. Josiah returned a few minutes later, informing them that the wire had been sent and received. Chris asked them to keep an eye on Vin. The boy protested.

"No, Chris, I want to go. JD is my cousin. I promised his mama."

The man placed his hands on the boy's shoulders. "Vin, I have a job that I need you to do. I promised you that I would bring JD back, but I need you to watch Buck for me. You know he's going to wake up and want to go after JD, but I need him to be here when we got back. Can you do that for me?"

Vin's lower lip quivered, but he nodded.

Chris clapped the boy's arm and stood up. "Good man." Chris nodded at Nathan and turned to leave. A small voice stopped him.

"Chris, he shot Buck."

Chris came back and squatted in front of the boy. "Vin, I don't think the man wants to shoot JD. Don't worry. I'll bring your cousin back."

He studied the boy's face. "What is it, son?"

"If he could hurt Buck, he could hurt you." The boy's eyes filled with tears. Vin clenched his fists as he tried to not cry. Chris reached out and enveloped the small body in a hug. Vin threw his skinny arms around the gunman's neck and held him tight, hot tears falling onto the black shirt.

"I promise to be careful. Ezra will help keep me and JD safe. " Chris pulled back and wiped the moisture from the youngsters face and smiled. "I'll get Ezra to talk the man to death with his fancy words."

The boy chuckled at the thought and relaxed for a moment. Chris stood and glanced at the man sleeping restlessly on the other side of the room. Looking back at the boy, "You take good care of ole Buck for me. He'll be a handful when he wakes up."

Vin gave Chris a lopsided smile. "I already got it figured out. I'm gonna hide his pants and boots, 'fore he wakes up."

Chris stared at the boy. "That should slow him up." He ruffled the boy's hair, as he tipped his hat to Nathan. "We'll be back." He turned and left the room. Joining Ezra on the street, they mounted and rode out of town. Chris could feel the light blue eyes watching as they rode out.

+ + + + + + +

At the same time, Sally Foster awoke and hugged the small body next to her lightly. She stroked the unruly hair back and studied the soft, smooth cheek, humming softly as the little boy slept. She could hear Jack moving around outside and knew she should get up to get breakfast on, but she could not tear herself away from the young child.

"Sun's up, woman. Let's get moving."

Sally sighed as she rose and got dressed. She shook the small boy and smiled as he rubbed his eyes and sat up.

"I have to go," he proclaimed. Sally helped him slip into his pants and boots and lowered him over the edge of the wagon. JD ran over to a bush on the canyon side of the camp. He returned within a couple of minutes and was instructed to gather wood for the fire. The boy started looking and soon had enough wood to satisfy Foster. The man, then, told him to feed and water the animals while breakfast was prepared. The small boy had no trouble with the feed, but struggled with the water buckets. He stumbled and fell while carrying the fourth heavy pail. Jack was on him in a minute.

He grabbed the boy by the arm. "Boy, what the hell are you doing? Stop messing around and finish. We ain't staying the day here. Now get done and clean up this camp."

Sally ran over and pulled the boy away from the angry man. "Jack, he's doing the best he can. He's only a little boy. Those buckets are heavy." She shielded the boy from the man, flinching as he drew back his hand. He never finished the strike. He simply told her to finish so they could get on the road.

The woman knelt down and wiped the big tears from the child's face. "It's okay, baby, you did good. Let's go eat and get ready to move." She hugged him briefly and, sweeping the long dark bangs back, kissed his forehead. Standing she took his hand and led him to the food that lay waiting.

The trio made quick work of the meal and were soon on the road. Jack drove the wagon as Sally and 'Robert' sat inside on the bedding. JD played with some small wooden cravings the woman had pulled out of a chest. He played quietly for a while, absorbed in his own little world. Distractedly, he commented, "I wish Vin was here. He could be the Indians and I could be Buck and Chris." JD continued to play, unaware of the looks he received from both adults. Jack seethed at the boy's carelessness, while Sally looked confused.

'Who was Robert talking about? Who were these people he mentioned?’ She watched him play a while longer and then went back to her sewing. 'Probably some friends he had made in the town they had just left. She shuddered at the memory of the man who came and took her son away. It was good that she had Jack Foster to go and get her son back for her. She still did not understand why they had taken him to begin with. If she had still been sick, it would be easier to understand, But she had been getting better when it all happened. Tears sprung to her eyes as she thought about losing her son forever. She could not want to go on if that happened. Once again, she watched the small boy playing near her. So sweet, so innocent. What would she do without him-her son, Abel's son, her life?


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